For more than five decades, critics and fans have poured over Bob Dylan’s words that excite more interest than even his wild mercury sound, and everyone has a favourite lyric.
Well, nearly everyone. “In my eyes,” wrote Germaine Greer in 2008, “He wasn’t fit to tie Woody Guthrie’s shoelaces.” Still, for the rest of us, here are 10 of Dylan’s finest. Your experience may differ. Vote in the poll below or add your suggestions in the comments below.
1. ‘Positively 4th Street’ – 1965
Yes, I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is to see you
It was a great year for Dylan vitriol. The split with the trad folk scene that would culminate in shouts of “Judas!” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966 was already betraying its first faultlines with ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and Dylan was on fine form. Just meeting him would be like walking “into a threshing machine” according to protest singer Phil Ochs. ‘Positively 4th Street’ was the indelible message to his detractors.
2. ‘Visions Of Johanna’ – 1966
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial/Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while/But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues/You can tell by the way she smiles
The absence of Johanna – Joan Baez? That’s the theory – was the springboard for ‘Blonde On Blonde”s grand, mysterious, snaky opus, which is chocka with imagery (“the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”) that’s either pigswill or profound, but engaging all the way. The droll study of the Mona Lisa is probably the least acid-frazzled of the lot.
3. ‘Masters Of War’ – 1963
You that build all the bombs/You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know/I can see through your masks
“If I wrote a song like that now,” said Dylan in 1984, “I wouldn’t feel I’d have to write another one for two weeks.” Back in the early 1960s he was turning them out in minutes then moving onto the next one, which suggests these insights were bursting from his seams. That the sentiments of ‘Masters Of War’ ring as true today as ever is as impressive as it is depressing.
4. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – 1965
I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them/They sing while you slave/And I just get bored
It’s 1965 again, and Dylan’s all about emancipation. Could be from The Man, could just as easily be from his dyed-in-the-wool, protest-singing buddies. He’s feeling the pinch of tradition and wants to get out and just be himself, and the ripples are going to be seismic.
5. ‘Idiot Wind’ – 1975
Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
‘Blood On The Tracks’ famously found Dylan emerging from a creative trough but there’d been one hell of a price to pay. It chronicles, for the most part, his separation from first wife Sara Lownds and he’s got mixed feelings to say the least. ‘Idiot Wind”s a spitting fury of a song, almost unwittingly funny in its spite but Dylan takes some blame himself, in the end: “We are idiots, babe/It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”.
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6. ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ – 1975
I’m going out of my mind/With a pain that stops and starts/Like a corkscrew to my heart/Ever since we’ve been apart
Even so, Dylan did find time to go all soft on ‘Blood On The Tracks’, and ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ is its sweetest moment. Mixed feelings, you see. Mind you, Dylan insists it’s not about Lownds, despite everyone’s assumptions: “Stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are… Fools, they limit you to their own unimaginative mentality”. Oh.
7. ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ – 1965
As human gods aim for their mark/Make everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark/Easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred
Well, what to pick from ‘It’s Alright, Ma’? From ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (again), it’s the album’s lasting statement, a seven-and-a-half-minute masterpiece taking down all of society’s false gods, an accumulation of half a decade’s sneering, clear-eyed observations.
8. ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’ – 1967
So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’/Help him with his load/And don’t go mistaking Paradise/For that home across the road
No one has a clue what the blazes is going on in ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’, but Dylan has a way with a neat pay-off, a kind of moral to a story with biblical roots. The album ‘John Wesley Harding’ is, in its entirety, in stark contrast to the free-association and experimentation of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ just a year earlier, deepening Dylan’s well of inspiration.
9. ‘The Man In The Long Black Coat’ – 1989
Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/You cannot depend on it to be your guide when it’s you who must keep it satisfied
It’s almost a riddle. How can you fall back on your conscience when it’s essentially you controlling it? Dylan seemed to wake up after a decade or more’s slumber on 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’, and here uses the device of the preacher man to lay bare the uncomfortable secrets of our cloudy minds.
10. ‘Just Like A Woman’ – 1966
And she aches just like a woman/But she breaks just like a little girl
“Roberta Flack did ‘Just Like A Woman’ but she got the words wrong,” claimed Dylan in 1975. “Personally I don’t understand why anybody would want to do that song, ‘cept me.” The thing is, anyone could do it because it’s so un-Dylan, the man proving he could be tender too. There’s some bite to ‘Just Like A Woman’ – “She takes just like a woman”, “Don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world” – but the take-home emotion is regret.